Biggest Ticking Time Bombs in 2017 NBA Free Agency
Free agency can be—and often is—a dangerous game in the NBA. Every summer, one team or another is all but guaranteed to overpay for veteran talent that winds up choking its cap sheet like alien weeds in a once-thriving lake.
Last year, midtier starters and role players (i.e. Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes, Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng) sucked much of the oxygen out of an unusually frisky market flooded with new TV money. This time around, most of the available dollars figure to be doled out to established All-Stars and other big names.
The end result, though, could be just as damaging to the squads involved, if not more so.
For one, the cap is expected to level off following this year’s mini-spike past $100 million. Clubs can’t count on another influx of new revenue to minimize, if not wipe away, their next round of mistakes.
More importantly, the players who put pen to paper on the more exorbitant pacts could turn into toxic assets in a flash, despite sporting glitzier credentials. Whether due to age, injury histories or some combination of factors, teams would be wise to think twice about committing major money, max-level or otherwise, to these marquee free agents, listed alphabetically by last name.
JaMychal Green, Power Forward, Memphis Grizzlies (Restricted)
Green has grown into the mold of a modern stretch 4. He hit 37.9 percent of his threes (a career high) this past while averaging 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds (also career highs) in 77 appearances (75 starts).
Come playoff time, the 6'9" Alabaman couldn't hold onto his starting gig during the Memphis Grizzlies' first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. He still shot a sparkling 43.8 percent from three on 2.7 attempts per game, albeit while struggling to stave off San Antonio's superior size on the other end.
The Grizzlies, with their impending cap crunch, would have only limited means of replacing Green on the open market. But tying up what little flexibility they have left in a 26-year-old who can be game-planned into irrelevance comes with its own set of risks, short- and long-term.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Shooting Guard, Atlanta Hawks (Restricted)
Reasonable people can disagree on the meaning of Tim Hardaway Jr.'s breakout year with the Atlanta Hawks.
A supporter could say his career highs in points (14.5), field-goal percentage (.455), rebounds (2.8), assists (2.3) and minutes (27.3) point to a young player who finally got to reveal his true talents in an expanded NBA role. A skeptic might highlight this as another example of a guy conveniently upping his game in a contract year while also noting how Hardaway Jr.'s production dipped during Atlanta's first-round ouster (12.8 points on 32.9 percent shooting, 26.2 percent from three).
What's clear for both is that he can score when he puts his mind to it, as 23 games of 20 points or more during the regular season suggests. But will he do so consistently once he gets paid, without the pressure of impending free agency to propel him?
Nerlens Noel, Center, Dallas Mavericks (Restricted)
The Dallas Mavericks dealt a middling prospect (Justin Anderson), an expiring contract (Andrew Bogut) and what became a pair of second-round picks to see if Nerlens Noel might be their center of the future. What they saw in 22 games was encouraging, if not entirely inspiring.
The Kentucky product put up 8.5 points on 57.5 percent shooting with 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks in 22.0 minutes per game. Extrapolate those stats over 36 minutes, and you're looking at a 23-year-old with ample room for improvement who's already pouring in 14.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.5 combined steals and blocks. That's a tantalizing picture for most any team, especially the Mavs, who've swung and missed on center after center since letting Tyson Chandler walk after winning the 2011 title.
Whether Noel would ever be able to carry such a load is the bigger concern here. He missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, sat out 15 games due to injury in 2015-16 and racked up 31 DNPs last season.
Danilo Gallinari, Small Forward, Denver Nuggets (Player Option)
There’s a lot to like about Danilo Gallinari.
The cocksureness on the court. The stats he put up (18.1 points 44.7 percent shooting, 38.8 percent from three) in support of a surprisingly competitive season for the Denver Nuggets.
Those qualities, when wrapped in a 6’10” frame, make the 28-year-old Gallinari appealing in a league where wings with size who can shoot and score are the most precious commodity.
But Gallo, for all his skills, is no slam-dunk signing, due in large part to his laundry list of past injuries. The former lottery pick from Italy has missed fewer than 11 games in a given campaign just once since the New York Knicks drafted him in 2008. This past season, he sat out 19 times for the Nuggets. The year prior, he racked up 29 DNPs.
Gallinari may be this summer’s Chandler Parsons: a gifted forward who quickly becomes a cautionary tale when (not if) his body comes back to bite him after inking a massive deal.
As the Denver Post’s Nick Kosmider detailed, Denver can ill-afford to invest heavily in a player who could wind up as dead weight on its cap sheet.
"Although the Nuggets sat just below the salary floor this season, young players such as Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic will be up for big contracts in the relatively near future. Denver also hopes to reach a deal this summer with restricted free agent center Mason Plumlee. The Nuggets could also be pursuing other free agents in an effort to improve a defense that finished second-to-last this season."
The rest of the league would do well to tread just as lightly around Gallo, lest another team wind up with the same financial headache.
Rudy Gay, Small Forward, Sacramento Kings (Player Option)
Of all the players with options for 2017-18, Rudy Gay looked like the best bet to pick his up. A torn Achilles tendon suffered halfway through this past season appeared to seal his return to the Sacramento Kings to collect the $14.3 million left on his contract.
But the business of basketball has a way of taking everyone by surprise. And so it is, according to The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, that Gay will opt out before the June 10 deadline. Apparently, a career-threatening injury wasn’t enough to sway Gay from his stance in September, when The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the veteran wing was angling for a way out of California’s capital.
Perhaps Gay was encouraged by Wesley Matthews’ $70 million windfall from 2015, in the wake of his own Achilles injury. But Matthews’ free-agent coup came with plenty of caveats.
For one, he was two years younger than the 30-year-old Gay is now. The team with which Matthews signed (the Dallas Mavericks) was desperate for a splashy addition and only upped the terms of his deal after DeAndre Jordan backed out of his verbal commitment to the club.
Matthews’ performance since then won’t likely soothe any concerns from general managers about Gay’s comeback. Matthews managed to return for 78 games during his first season in Dallas but shot career-low percentages from the field (.388) and from three (.360). The numbers he posted the following year were the second-worst of his time in the NBA.
Gay has never been a true sharpshooter—which could work against him further here. Where a respected marksman might be able to skate by from behind the line after losing several steps to injury, Gay, who made most of his bones in the Association with his physical abilities, sports no such fallback.
Blake Griffin, Power Forward, Los Angeles Clippers (Player Option)
The Boston Celtics have the cap space and the readymade contender to appeal to both Griffin and Hayward. Former NBA journeyman Glen “Big Baby” Davis predicted that his former Los Angeles Clippers teammate would take his talents back home to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers will have something to say here—as many as 175 million somethings to say, to be precise.
For a 28-year-old star with Griffin’s tireless work ethic and burgeoning all-around skill set, it’s a price well worth paying. But for one with his poor track record opposite the incessant injury bug—one that only worsened in 2016-17, between Griffin’s midseason knee surgery and playoff-ending toe problem—it’s a gamble.
As The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski framed it: "To think the Clippers can watch Griffin get hurt again, lose in the first round and simply bring back everyone to incur a historic payroll and luxury-tax bill isn’t realistic. Just because Clippers owner Steve Ballmer can afford to pay that immense repeater tax doesn’t make it sensible."
Nor would it be any safer for another team to take a chance on a gifted player who’s no longer the overwhelming athlete he once was and, even if he is, can’t stay on the court long enough to prove it.
Griffin’s next team, whichever one that may be, could squeeze another season or two of top-notch play out of him, just as the New York Knicks did when they signed Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. But like Stoudemire in the Big Apple, Griffin could soon be stuck on a squad made all the more subpar by his inability to conjure up the high-flying finisher he once was.
George Hill, Point Guard, Utah Jazz (Unrestricted)
The Utah Jazz tried to lock in George Hill as a franchise building block during the 2016-17 season. According to NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman, a renegotiation and extension could’ve netted Hill an immediate raise of nearly $14 million and another three years at an average of just over $25 million per.
Instead, he declined. Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Hill had "been advised he can get [a] much better deal this summer than what [the] Jazz can offer now."
Whether that’s still true will depend on how teams, Utah included, judge Hill’s longevity.
Hill was a fantastic fit in Salt Lake City. He averaged a career-high 16.9 points during the regular season while shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 40.3 percent from three. His steady hand at the point on offense and disruptive ability on defense were just what the Jazz needed to make the leap from the fringes of postseason contention into the thick of the second round.
That Utah won more than 67 percent of its games with Hill in the lineup speaks to his efficacy. That he only appeared in 49 regular-season outings, and sat out Games 2 through 4 against the Golden State Warriors during the playoffs, points to the problem his health could pose to whichever team lands his signature.
Hill’s issues aren’t entirely isolated, either. He missed eight games in 2015-16 and 39 the year before that. At 31, the odds of him getting sturdier are slim.
And as good as Hill has been when healthy, is he the type of point guard who’s going to put a team over the top and into title contention in a league that’s loaded at his position? Any club that’s going to shell out upward of $25 million per season for his services had better hope so.
Serge Ibaka, Power Forward, Toronto Raptors (Unrestricted)
The Toronto Raptors will have bigger fish to fry this summer than Serge Ibaka (more on that later). But the Congolese big man could complicate the club’s cap situation nonetheless if the Raptors meet his asking price this summer.
Even at 27, Ibaka has long since left behind his days as a Defensive Player of the Year contender and hasn’t become nearly impactful enough on offense since then to compensate.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe painted a particularly grim picture: "Ibaka is trending the wrong way. He's a good spot-up shooter, but opponents still mostly leave him open. He doesn't have the sort of gravitational pull that changes the geometry of the floor. His defense has fallen off. He can't post up, and he still has zero playmaking skills. Pass him the ball in open space, and the music stops. He holds the ball, the scrambled defense resets itself, and every window closes."
As Lowe also noted, the Raptors won’t likely shell out for Ibaka if they don’t retain their other major free agent (again, more on that in a bit). One way or another, he could still get paid handsomely, even if he has to leave Toronto to do so.
In today’s NBA, where shooting and defense are always at a premium—especially at power forward—Ibaka’s on-paper potential in those two categories could lend him just enough luster to lead a team to overlook just what fool’s gold he’s become.
Kyle Lowry, Point Guard, Toronto Raptors (Player Option)
After watching his Toronto Raptors succumb to the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games, team president Masai Ujiri seemed to want to have his cake and eat it too.
On the one hand, he suggested the Raptors needed a "culture reset." On the other, he insisted the organization will try to bring back Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s best player and, in some ways, that very culture made flesh.
"It’s our job to try and get Kyle to come back and do it the best way that we possibly can," Ujiri said, per SportsNet. "We want him back; he has been a huge part of the success here."
The cost of retaining Lowry, while well within ownership’s financial wheelhouse, may be too high for the Raptors to reach any higher. As a veteran with more than 10 years of NBA experience, he’ll be eligible to sign a five-year deal worth upward of $200 million—one that could net him in the neighborhood of $40 million in a single season when he turns 36.
As much as Lowry has improved over his five seasons in Toronto, the list of short point guards who have thrived deep into their 30s is probably buried underground in someone’s childhood time capsule, if it exists at all. Are the Raptors ready to commit to the most expensive backcourt in basketball when the ceiling of said squad is, apparently, well beneath the roof?
Odds are, the three-time All-Star will have no shortage of suitors south of the U.S.-Canada border. While none of those teams can offer Lowry a deal as long or as lucrative as the max Toronto has in its back pocket, shelling out more than $150 million over four years to that same aging, undersized, injury-prone point guard might not make any more sense for a rebuilding bunch like the Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers.
And while the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks might be desperate enough to meet Lowry’s asking price, he wouldn’t move any closer to toppling LeBron James than he would by staying put in Toronto.
Paul Millsap, Power Forward, Atlanta Hawks (Player Option)
Paul Millsap’s 2017 postseason was his shortest since 2012, but he packed plenty into the Atlanta Hawks’ six games against the Washington Wizards. The four-time All-Star averaged 24.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists—well above his regular-season line of 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
It’s no wonder the Hawks are so keen to re-sign Millsap this summer, per NBA.com’s David Aldridge.
"Millsap’s future is first and foremost. (No matter who is picked as GM, Millsap will be dealing directly with [team owner Tony] Ressler on his contract going forward, I’m told.) [Head coach Mike] Budenholzer and the owners want to do everything possible to re-sign him."
How great he’ll be, and for how long, will largely be up to Father Time. Millsap is coming off a career-best scoring season, though some other numbers suggest a decline to be in the offing.
The first: his age (32). The second: his field-goal percentage (a career-low 44.2 percent). The third: his PER (17.8, his lowest since 2009-10).
The most troubling number of all: what Atlanta can pay him this summer ($207 million, per Peachtree Hoops).
Re-signing Millsap may be the Hawks’ only surefire way to extend its franchise-record playoff streak into a second decade. But tying up that kind of money in an aging power forward—on top of the $47.3 million the team still owes an over-the-hill Dwight Howard over the next two seasons—could severely hamstring Atlanta’s ability to properly retool around promising point guard Dennis Schroder.
Chris Paul, Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers (Player Option)
In all likelihood, Chris Paul didn’t help negotiate a change in the league’s Over-36 rule to the Over-38 rule in the new collective bargaining agreement just so he could leave the Los Angeles Clippers for another contender. The safe bet is that L.A. ponies up more than $200 million to keep the man who, upon arrival in 2011, legitimized what had long been the saddest franchise in the NBA, if not all of North American pro sports.
But the San Antonio Spurs, with their rock-solid organizational culture and creative front office, could always find a way to fit Paul into their plans if he decides his act is better suited for the Alamo City.
Not that he’d solve the Spurs’ problems any more than he could push the Clippers over their hump going forward. As noted with Lowry, the league’s history books aren’t exactly littered with point guards at or under 6’0” who thrived deep into their 30s. The 6’1” John Stockton, who made his last All-Star appearance at 38 and shot 51.7 percent from the field during a season in which turned 40, is about as close as they come.
There’s some reason to believe Paul could carry on in that capacity. Aside from his Stockton-esque penchant for hard-nosed play, CP3 doesn’t rely on the speed and athleticism that supercharged his game at a young age. He’ll always be strong and he’ll always have pinpoint command of the court so long as he’s upright.
But where Stockton missed 10 or more games just once during his 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, Paul has already racked up five such campaigns, including his 21 DNPs in 2016-17.
At 32, he’s not likely to get any sturdier. And while he’s still shown a capacity to perform at an otherworldly level on both ends when pressed into such duty, Paul’s ability to sustain that exemplary play, particularly under pressure, remains a point of concern after so many early playoff exits—some of which were hastened by his own collapses in late-game situations.
J.J. Redick, Shooting Guard, Los Angeles Clippers (Unrestricted)
According to the New York Post’s Marc Berman, J.J. Redick hopes to sign a new deal this summer that will pay him more than $16 million per season.
In today’s shooting-obsessed, money-drunk NBA, that’s a good price for a player, in Redick, who led the league in three-point percentage (.475) during the 2015-16 season and finished sixth in that regard (.429) this past campaign. And for a guy who runs as much as he does, Redick has been remarkably healthy of late, missing just 15 games over the last three years.
Redick, though, has proved ripe for exposure in the postseason, at 6’4” and without any remarkable length or strength to make up for that middling size on the wing.
Last year, he shot 43.0 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from three in six games against the Portland Trail Blazers. This year, he mustered a mere 7.1 field-goal attempts per game—and hit just 38.0 percent of them—against the Utah Jazz’s bigger, longer perimeter players, and he offered minimal resistance to them on the other end.
"We need more length and two-way players," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said at his end-of-season press conference, per Berman.
At this point, Redick doesn’t fit either description and won’t likely change that once he turns 33 this summer. Whichever team meets his salary demands this summer will soon find out for itself what became all too apparent to the Clippers this spring.
Derrick Rose, Point Guard, New York Knicks (Unrestricted)
Derrick Rose has become a font of (shall we say) fantastical ideas over the years. Before the 2016-17 season, he suggested the New York Knicks, with all of their big names, should be considered a “superteam.” Amid the kerfuffle of his mysterious unexcused absence, word broke, per ESPN’s Ian Begley, that Rose would seek a max contract approaching $150 million this summer.
That sum may seem ludicrous, but he only needs one sucker—one general manager or owner who thinks the Derrick Rose of old is still out there somewhere—to agree to those terms.
To his credit, Rose did show more frequent flashes of his pre-injury self this past season than at any point since his knee first buckled in the spring of 2012. He averaged 18.0 points on 47.1 percent shooting in 64 games, with 12 performances of 25 points or more. More impressive still, he did all that despite the annual fits of dysfunction that have come to define the Knicks as a franchise.
An efficient free-agent process would quickly weed out Rose from the top potential earners. He’s not even one of the five best players available at his position this summer. And with so many good (and relatively inexpensive) point guards either already settled into spots across the Association or set to enter via the 2017 draft, the market for players of Rose’s skill set and at his price point figures to be infinitesimal, at best.
But again...all it takes is one. For all the red flags, both on and off the court, Derrick Rose’s name and MVP credentials may still carry enough weight somewhere in the NBA to reel in that one check.